The Intersection: Jan 2014

Welcome to The Intersection, a series designed to help you anticipate and prepare for public policy challenges and opportunities.

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APIs and Open Data Empower Everyone

Modern websites are dashboards. Most websites (including VOX Global’s) have been augmented with widgets, plugins, APIs, embeds and/or snippets that feed in real-time content from other sites. Even if you’re not a developer, understanding the data sources that power modern websites is a useful skill for anyone that publishes content online – which is now basically everyone.

The “internet,” as the name implies, was intended to facilitate interconnectivity. Now, as the amount of data becoming freely available online has continued to grow, there are more opportunities than ever to scrape, filter and repackage external data in exciting new ways to supercharge any website.

Government data, in particular, is both reliable and empowering for decision makers. Demographics, income, employment and other key socioeconomic indicators compiled through years of research are becoming widely available and more accessible than ever thanks to third party applications and ideas. In May 2013, President Obama established Project Open Data aiming to make as much government data available as possible to developers through its own GitHub account. (GitHub is an open source sharing community allowing developers to work on the same code.)

3rd Party Data in Action

It is not difficult to find external sources once you know what to look for. Below is a screenshot of all the external sources that make up the current landing page of three prominent websites: The New York Times, Mashable, and Healthcare.gov. It is easy to see how many external websites these three sites draw upon for data.

To pop open the hoods of your favorite sites, use Google Chrome’s Developer Tools, which can be accessed for any website by right-clicking on anything of interest.

OpenData and APIs: Swimming in a Sea of JSON

JSON, JavaScript Object Notation, is a sharable data format that has many advantages for software programs (e.g. it’s lightweight and has good punctuation), but it is somewhat cumbersome to use directly.  While not particularly friendly to humans, JSON is perfect for API’s (Application Programming Interfaces). APIs can open up huge databases by sending raw data to other programs in real time via millions of JSON-encoded responses; responses that are then immediately fed into human-friendly websites and applications.  For example, make a request for the coordinates of VOX Global DC from the Google Places API. This is the same information that Google uses to plot the pins on their Maps application.

In addition to geocoding locations for maps, a good developer with an access key can build applications that serve the latest US Census data, the name of any US Congressperson or Congressional district of any address, the current status of active legislation, and much more. APIs and the JSON they serve open huge data stores and empower developers to create rich visualizations out of dry data which, in turn, empower everyone else.

For example, here are some APIs and Open Data sources:

These APIs and Open Data sources power the following visualizations:

Applications Get Social

Social websites are built for person-to-person sharing, but most offer powerful APIs that extend social networks to other sites and applications as well. The most popular social API networks are Twitter and Facebook, each handling over 5 billion requests per day. Both of these networks allow users to instantly share articles and other content, comment on stories using their Facebook or Twitter profile (and repost on the respective platform simultaneously), as well as see live updates from their friends without leaving the website. When site developers embed social widgets into pages, users can take their network with them anywhere on the internet and hopefully share what they find there.

Advertracking

Visible ad content embedded on sites is just the tip of the iceberg. While embedded social assets are becoming omnipresent, online ad networks have long held spots on all of the most popular websites. In the screenshots above, you can likely spot many familiar names, including Doubleclick.net, Googleadservices.com, Revsci.com and Chartbeat.com. This coverage enables unprecedented targeting. Seeing an irrelevant ad is much less likely online when ads can be programmatically swapped real-time based on each assumed visitor. Imagine if billboards could do that…

APIs will Empower the Present and the Future

Government agencies, nonprofits and the open-source community have a lot of data to share, and more is being opened to applications everyday. That data will empower many more decision makers and publishers as new ways to collect, repurpose and visualize it are invented – all with the help of a smart developer, of course!